The Last Days of Jesus

by François Bovon, Kristin Hennessy, translator

Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006, x + 101 pp.
$17.95 (softcover)
Reviewed by Helmut Koester
If you believe that, despite the differences in the Gospel accounts, everything reported about the trial and death of Jesus is historical and truthful, then do not read this book. The Last Days of Jesus is a learned and masterful evaluation of all the available sources, including the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, testing carefully and critically the historicity of the Gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus. Yes, Jesus was arrested by the Jewish Temple guard and brought before the Sanhedrin, but he was not condemned by the court of the high priest, although this court denounced Jesus to the Roman governor Pilate. Was their accusation that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah and was thereby committing blasphemy? Not very likely. Nor is it believable that Jesus would ever have agreed that he was the Messiah. Did Pilate give the people the choice between Jesus and Barabbas? Perhaps. Pilate was probably puzzled by Jesus’ silence; however, the report of the conversation between Pilate and Jesus in John’s Gospel is as unhistorical as the account of the Beloved Disciple and Jesus’ mother standing at the foot of the cross. No words would have been uttered by a person dying of asphyxiation on a cross.

If you hope that something historically valuable can be learned from a critical assessment of the Gospel reports, this is the book you want to read—indeed the very best that I know. Roman law allowed an imperial governor, and only him, to pass a sentence of death without a jury. Pilate put Jesus to death, not the Jewish authorities, whatever their complicity might have been. The tendency of the authors of the Gospels to pass the guilt to the Jews is clearly tendentious and has no historical foundation. The authors of the Gospels had no sources to provide accurate reports of the events; thus they turned to the Biblical stories of the suffering Servant of God in Isaiah and in the Psalms in order to fill in the details. My remaining question is whether even this critical assessment still finds more reliable historical information that can be obtained. Probably everything is ultimately drawn from the prophetic writings and the Psalms of the Bible, except for the fact that Jesus was indeed sentenced to death by Pilate and that Pilate put the mock inscription “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews” on the cross.

Helmut Koester is a German-born American scholar of the New Testament and currently Morison Research Professor of Divinity and Winn Research Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School.

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